Cousin Betty/Section 40

By seven next morning Lisbeth had driven in a hackney coach to the Quai de la Tournelle, and stopped the vehicle at the corner of the Rue de Poissy.

"Go to the Rue des Bernardins," said she to the driver, "No. 7, a house with an entry and no porter. Go up to the fourth floor, ring at the door to the left, on which you will see 'Mademoiselle Chardin—Lace and shawls mended.' She will answer the door. Ask for the Chevalier. She will say he is out. Say in reply, 'Yes, I know, but find him, for his bonne is out on the quay in a coach, and wants to see him.'"

Twenty minutes later, an old man, who looked about eighty, with perfectly white hair, and a nose reddened by the cold, and a pale, wrinkled face like an old woman's, came shuffling slowly along in list slippers, a shiny alpaca overcoat hanging on his stooping shoulders, no ribbon at his buttonhole, the sleeves of an under-vest showing below his coat-cuffs, and his shirt-front unpleasantly dingy. He approached timidly, looked at the coach, recognized Lisbeth, and came to the window.

"Why, my dear cousin, what a state you are in!"

"Elodie keeps everything for herself," said Baron Hulot. "Those Chardins are a blackguard crew."

"Will you come home to us?"

"Oh, no, no!" cried the old man. "I would rather go to America."

"Adeline is on the scent."

"Oh, if only some one would pay my debts!" said the Baron, with a suspicious look, "for Samanon is after me."

"We have not paid up the arrears yet; your son still owes a hundred thousand francs."

"Poor boy!"

"And your pension will not be free before seven or eight months.—If you will wait a minute, I have two thousand francs here."

The Baron held out his hand with fearful avidity.

"Give it me, Lisbeth, and may God reward you! Give it me; I know where to go."

"But you will tell me, old wretch?"

"Yes, yes. Then I can wait eight months, for I have discovered a little angel, a good child, an innocent thing not old enough to be depraved."

"Do not forget the police-court," said Lisbeth, who flattered herself that she would some day see Hulot there.

"No.—It is in the Rue de Charonne," said the Baron, "a part of the town where no fuss is made about anything. No one will ever find me there. I am called Pere Thorec, Lisbeth, and I shall be taken for a retired cabinet-maker; the girl is fond of me, and I will not allow my back to be shorn any more."

"No, that has been done," said Lisbeth, looking at his coat. "Supposing I take you there."

Baron Hulot got into the coach, deserting Mademoiselle Elodie without taking leave of her, as he might have tossed aside a novel he had finished.

In half an hour, during which Baron Hulot talked to Lisbeth of nothing but little Atala Judici—for he had fallen by degrees to those base passions that ruin old men—she set him down with two thousand francs in his pocket, in the Rue de Charonne, Faubourg Saint-Antoine, at the door of a doubtful and sinister-looking house.

"Good-day, cousin; so now you are to be called Thorec, I suppose? Send none but commissionaires if you need me, and always take them from different parts."

"Trust me! Oh, I am really very lucky!" said the Baron, his face beaming with the prospect of new and future happiness.

"No one can find him there," said Lisbeth; and she paid the coach at the Boulevard Beaumarchais, and returned to the Rue Louis-le-Grand in the omnibus.

On the following day Crevel was announced at the hour when all the family were together in the drawing-room, just after breakfast. Celestine flew to throw her arms round her father's neck, and behaved as if she had seen him only the day before, though in fact he had not called there for more than two years.

"Good-morning, father," said Victorin, offering his hand.

"Good-morning, children," said the pompous Crevel. "Madame la Baronne, I throw myself at your feet! Good Heavens, how the children grow! they are pushing us off the perch—'Grand-pa,' they say, 'we want our turn in the sunshine.'—Madame la Comtesse, you are as lovely as ever," he went on, addressing Hortense.—"Ah, ha! and here is the best of good money: Cousin Betty, the Wise Virgin."

"Why, you are really very comfortable here," said he, after scattering these greetings with a cackle of loud laughter that hardly moved the rubicund muscles of his broad face.

He looked at his daughter with some contempt.

"My dear Celestine, I will make you a present of all my furniture out of the Rue des Saussayes; it will just do here. Your drawing-room wants furnishing up.—Ha! there is that little rogue Wenceslas. Well, and are we very good children, I wonder? You must have pretty manners, you know."

"To make up for those who have none," said Lisbeth.

"That sarcasm, my dear Lisbeth, has lost its sting. I am going, my dear children, to put an end to the false position in which I have so long been placed; I have come, like a good father, to announce my approaching marriage without any circumlocution."

"You have a perfect right to marry," said Victorin. "And for my part, I give you back the promise you made me when you gave me the hand of my dear Celestine—"

"What promise?" said Crevel.

"Not to marry," replied the lawyer. "You will do me the justice to allow that I did not ask you to pledge yourself, that you gave your word quite voluntarily and in spite of my desire, for I pointed out to you at the time that you were unwise to bind yourself."

"Yes, I do remember, my dear fellow," said Crevel, ashamed of himself. "But, on my honor, if you will but live with Madame Crevel, my children, you will find no reason to repent.—Your good feeling touches me, Victorin, and you will find that generosity to me is not unrewarded.—Come, by the Poker! welcome your stepmother and come to the wedding."

"But you have not told us the lady's name, papa," said Celestine.

"Why, it is an open secret," replied Crevel. "Do not let us play at guess who can! Lisbeth must have told you."

"My dear Monsieur Crevel," replied Lisbeth, "there are certain names we never utter here—"

"Well, then, it is Madame Marneffe."

"Monsieur Crevel," said the lawyer very sternly, "neither my wife nor I can be present at that marriage; not out of interest, for I spoke in all sincerity just now. Yes, I am most happy to think that you may find happiness in this union; but I act on considerations of honor and good feeling which you must understand, and which I cannot speak of here, as they reopen wounds still ready to bleed——"

The Baroness telegraphed a signal to Hortense, who tucked her little one under her arm, saying, "Come Wenceslas, and have your bath!—Good-bye, Monsieur Crevel."

The Baroness also bowed to Crevel without a word; and Crevel could not help smiling at the child's astonishment when threatened with this impromptu tubbing.

"You, monsieur," said Victorin, when he found himself alone with Lisbeth, his wife, and his father-in-law, "are about to marry a woman loaded with the spoils of my father; it was she who, in cold blood, brought him down to such depths; a woman who is the son-in-law's mistress after ruining the father-in-law; who is the cause of constant grief to my sister!—And you fancy that I shall seem to sanction your madness by my presence? I deeply pity you, dear Monsieur Crevel; you have no family feeling; you do not understand the unity of the honor which binds the members of it together. There is no arguing with passion—as I have too much reason to know. The slaves of their passions are as deaf as they are blind. Your daughter Celestine has too strong a sense of her duty to proffer a word of reproach."

"That would, indeed, be a pretty thing!" cried Crevel, trying to cut short this harangue.

"Celestine would not be my wife if she made the slightest remonstrance," the lawyer went on. "But I, at least, may try to stop you before you step over the precipice, especially after giving you ample proof of my disinterestedness. It is not your fortune, it is you that I care about. Nay, to make it quite plain to you, I may add, if it were only to set your mind at ease with regard to your marriage contract, that I am now in a position which leaves me with nothing to wish for—"

"Thanks to me!" exclaimed Crevel, whose face was purple.

"Thanks to Celestine's fortune," replied Victorin. "And if you regret having given to your daughter as a present from yourself, a sum which is not half what her mother left her, I can only say that we are prepared to give it back."

"And do you not know, my respected son-in-law," said Crevel, striking an attitude, "that under the shelter of my name Madame Marneffe is not called upon to answer for her conduct excepting as my wife—as Madame Crevel?"

"That is, no doubt, quite the correct thing," said the lawyer; "very generous so far as the affections are concerned and the vagaries of passion; but I know of no name, nor law, nor title that can shelter the theft of three hundred thousand francs so meanly wrung from my father!—I tell you plainly, my dear father-in-law, your future wife is unworthy of you, she is false to you, and is madly in love with my brother-in-law, Steinbock, whose debts she had paid."

"It is I who paid them!"

"Very good," said Hulot; "I am glad for Count Steinbock's sake; he may some day repay the money. But he is loved, much loved, and often—"

"Loved!" cried Crevel, whose face showed his utter bewilderment. "It is cowardly, and dirty, and mean, and cheap, to calumniate a woman!—When a man says such things, monsieur, he must bring proof."

"I will bring proof."

"I shall expect it."

"By the day after to-morrow, my dear Monsieur Crevel, I shall be able to tell you the day, the hour, the very minute when I can expose the horrible depravity of your future wife."

"Very well; I shall be delighted," said Crevel, who had recovered himself.

"Good-bye, my children, for the present; good-bye, Lisbeth."

"See him out, Lisbeth," said Celestine in an undertone.

"And is this the way you take yourself off?" cried Lisbeth to Crevel.

"Ah, ha!" said Crevel, "my son-in-law is too clever by half; he is getting on. The Courts and the Chamber, judicial trickery and political dodges, are making a man of him with a vengeance!—So he knows I am to be married on Wednesday, and on a Sunday my gentleman proposes to fix the hour, within three days, when he can prove that my wife is unworthy of me. That is a good story!—Well, I am going back to sign the contract. Come with me, Lisbeth—yes, come. They will never know. I meant to have left Celestine forty thousand francs a year; but Hulot has just behaved in a way to alienate my affection for ever."

"Give me ten minutes, Pere Crevel; wait for me in your carriage at the gate. I will make some excuse for going out."

"Very well—all right."

"My dears," said Lisbeth, who found all the family reassembled in the drawing-room, "I am going with Crevel: the marriage contract is to be signed this afternoon, and I shall hear what he has settled. It will probably be my last visit to that woman. Your father is furious; he will disinherit you—"

"His vanity will prevent that," said the son-in-law. "He was bent on owning the estate of Presles, and he will keep it; I know him. Even if he were to have children, Celestine would still have half of what he might leave; the law forbids his giving away all his fortune.—Still, these questions are nothing to me; I am only thinking of our honor.—Go then, cousin," and he pressed Lisbeth's hand, "and listen carefully to the contract."